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Ranking the 20 Greatest Players in Big East Basketball History

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistDecember 17, 2012

Ranking the 20 Greatest Players in Big East Basketball History

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    With Thursday's news of seven Catholic schools, many of them founding members, leaving the Big East, a once-great league has taken a major hit to its legacy in the name of chasing football dollars.

    Schools like St. John's, Georgetown and Villanova have been integral parts of the Big East's history since its inception. Many of the conference's greatest teams, coaches and players have represented these universities.

    This piece will focus on the transcendent individual talents that have worn Big East uniforms, two of whom, Hall of Famers Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing, are pictured above.

    Mullin is smiling on this old cover of Sport. Is he No. 1 in this particular countdown, or does Ewing swat him away like he did so many shots?

    Or is there another Big East icon who rates mention as the league's greatest ever?

    Read on.

Honorable Mentions

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    These were players with great resumes and a classic moment or two, but not quite enough to crack the top 20.

     

    Dan Callandrillo, Seton Hall 1979-82

    Callandrillo was a sophomore in the Big East's inaugural season. He left lots of "lingerie on the deck" for Pirates coach Bill Raftery in his first three seasons, but it was coach Hoddy Mahon who benefited from his 25.9 PPG as a senior. Callandrillo's scoring average in Big East games (21.7) is still fourth in league history.

     

    Terry Dehere, Seton Hall 1989-93

    Still the second-most prolific scorer in Big East history, Dehere kept the Pirates among the nation's top teams when it appeared their 1989 runner-up finish might be a fluke. He led the Hall to their only two regular-season and tournament titles in their Big East tenure, winning league Player of the Year and All-American honors as a senior.

     

    Ryan Gomes, Providence 2001-05

    Gomes was a consensus All-American in 2004, then became a truly dominant scorer in 2005. Capable of scoring from anywhere, Gomes recorded a superb career stat line of 18 points, nine rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, shooting 52 percent from the floor and 79 percent from the line. He's held back primarily because of a lack of team success.

     

    Mark Jackson, St. John's 1983-87

    Jackson was not only the NCAA's all-time assist leader when he finished his career, but he also shot 51 percent for his career. He excelled on both ends as a senior, averaging nearly 19 points per game and winning the league's Defensive Player of the Year.

     

    Donyell Marshall, UConn 1991-94

    UConn has had an impressive run of All-Americans, and it started with Donyell Marshall. His 1993-94 season was one for the books, averaging 25.1 PPG and nearly nine boards per game. Marshall scored 462 points in conference play, a record that stood until 2011, when Marshon Brooks topped it by a mere six.

     

    Lawrence Moten, Syracuse 1991-95

    During Moten's career, the Orange achieved only middling success by their lofty standards. That can't be blamed on him, though. Moten dropped more than 17.9 PPG in each of his four years, and still holds the Big East scoring record for conference games.

     

    Billy Owens, Syracuse 1988-91

    Owens managed to be the star on a Syracuse roster that included players like Derrick Coleman and Stevie Thompson, and was actually the first player to score 20 PPG in a season under Jim Boeheim. His career ended in disappointment, however, as the 1991 Orangemen became the first No. 2 seed to lose its opening NCAA tournament game.

     

    Scottie Reynolds, Villanova 2006-10

    Pictured above: Scottie's iconic shot, the running game-winner that sent the Wildcats to the 2009 Final Four. Reynolds ended his career just 21 points behind VU's all-time scoring leader, Kerry Kittles.

     

    Malik Sealy, St. John's 1988-92

    Sealy may have been the last truly iconic Johnnie. His career ended at the same time as his legendary coach Lou Carnesecca. Since Sealy was named a second-team All-American in 1992, no other SJU player has been so honored.

     

    Chris Smith, UConn 1988-92

    Still the Huskies' all-time scoring leader, Smith was the catalyst for UConn's 1990 burst into national prominence. The Huskies went 31-6 and reached the Elite Eight behind Smith's 17.2 PPG and 39-percent three-point shooting.

     

    John Wallace, Syracuse 1992-96

    Wallace started every single game of his college career, ending it with a huge game in the 1996 NCAA championship. Facing the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats, one of the greatest collections of talent in college basketball history, Wallace went for 29 points and 10 rebounds, but fell just short of the upset.

     

    Hakim Warrick, Syracuse 2001-05

    Warrick is one of eight Big East players to finish his career with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, but his legacy was secured by stuffing a baseline three-pointer by Kansas's Michael Lee, clinching the 2003 national championship for the Orange.

20. Charles Smith, Pittsburgh 1984-88

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    Charles Smith was one of the first big-time recruits to commit to Pitt, and he displayed an all-around game that still has to place him on the short list of the greatest Panthers ever.

    Smith averaged 15 points, eight rebounds and two blocks as a freshman, good for Big East Rookie of the Year honors. He made incremental improvement from there, except for a befuddling 40 percent from the floor as a sophomore.

    As a junior, he teamed with Jerome Lane to form one of the country's most explosive interior duos. Smith averaged 17 points and 8.5 rebounds, the latter an impressive figure since Lane was inhaling 13.5 boards a night.

    In Smith's senior season, the Panthers claimed their second straight regular-season Big East title, but also for the second straight year, they failed to reach the Sweet 16. Smith won Big East Player of the Year, the first Panther to claim the award.

19. Troy Murphy, Notre Dame 1998-2001

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    Troy Murphy dominated for three different coaches in his three seasons at Notre Dame.

    John MacLeod recruited him, then was fired. Matt Doherty brought the Irish back over .500, then bolted for his alma mater, North Carolina. Finally, Mike Brey arrived from Delaware and brought the Irish back to the NCAA tournament after a 10-year absence.

    The only constant was Murphy averaging something close to a double-double. His final career averages were 21.4 PPG and 9.8 RPG. At 6'11", he was a matchup nightmare thanks to shooting range that allowed him to drain 60 three-pointers over his final two seasons.

    His conference-play scoring average (21.3 PPG) still ranks fifth in league history. His 9.9 RPG in conference games ranks eighth. Only twice in his 94 career games was he held below 10 points.

18. Troy Bell, Boston College 1999-2003

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    Troy Bell stuffed a stat sheet like few players in Big East history. His 2,632 career points still rank 26th in the NCAA record book. Still, he didn't see much in the way of support and only won one NCAA tournament game in his career.

    The Eagles were a No. 3 seed in 2001, but only managed to reach the second round before falling to Southern Cal. Bell scored 32 points, but the rest of his team could barely shoot 25 percent.

    Bell was a true four-year star, starting out with a bang by becoming the first Big East freshman to average 20 PPG in conference play. The previous record had been Allen Iverson's 19.8 in 1994-95.

    From there, Bell averaged more than 20 points in all games, adding four rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.2 steals a game for his career. Bell also sits seventh in NCAA history with 810 free throws made. He drained 86.8 percent of those attempts, capitalizing on every chance to score.

    Bell remains one of only five players to win multiple Big East Player of the Year awards, and he's one of only three Eagles in history to receive two All-America selections.

17. Ed Pinckney, Villanova 1981-85

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    Ed Pinckney was never a spectacular or flashy player. He was a lunch pail player who never quit and feared no opponent.

    The indelible proof of that lack of fear came in the 1985 NCAA championship game. Pinckney recorded 16 points and six rebounds, compared to Patrick Ewing's 14 and five. Pinckney's Villanova Wildcats played a nearly flawless game and needed every inch of that perfection to escape with a two-point victory.

    After his final collegiate game, Pinckney's night was capped with a Final Four Most Outstanding Player award. He was used to some postseason success, as his first two seasons ended in the Elite Eight. Nova has only advanced to three regional finals since that national title win.

    Pinckney is still one of Nova's top 10 scorers and rebounders. Only one other player in school history has led the team in rebounding four straight years.

16. Emeka Okafor, UConn 2001-04

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    Emeka Okafor was a college professor's dream and an opposing player's nightmare.

    Okafor attained a finance degree with a 3.8 GPA in three years. On the court, he won a national championship and a host of individual awards within that same three-year span.

    Okafor was a dominant defensive force from day one, blocking at least four shots per game in each of his three seasons. He still sits 10th in NCAA history in rejections. He's also the only Husky in the Big East era to average a double-double for his career (13.8 PPG, 10.6 RPG).

    By 2004, his offensive game had caught up to his defense. He shot nearly 60 percent from the floor and averaged 17.6 PPG en route to a first-team All-America selection. Okafor was also a two-time Big East DPOY, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2004 Final Four and the 2004 Academic All-American of the Year.

15. Sherman Douglas, Syracuse 1985-89

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    Sherman Douglas was never noted for his athleticism, much like his predecessor Pearl Washington. A season practicing against Pearl, though, rendered Douglas unflappable under pressure from any other Big East point guard.

    Douglas exploded into his leadership role in that sophomore season, leading the Orangemen in both scoring and assists en route to the 1987 NCAA championship game.

    Under Douglas's leadership, Syracuse introduced the alley-oop to the basketball lexicon. Douglas made it look easy to flip balls to bigs Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman and high flyer Stevie Thompson for crowd-pleasing slams.

    Douglas left the college game as its all-time assist king and still stands sixth on the list today. Surprisingly for a point guard who only started for three seasons, Douglas was also Syracuse's all-time scoring leader when he graduated. Teammate Derrick Coleman would pass him on that list the following year.

14. Reggie Williams, Georgetown 1983-87

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    Reggie Williams was a player whose stats would have been greatly polished had the three-point shot shown up in college ball sooner.

    Williams was a key reserve on the 1984 national championship team as a freshman. In his sophomore season, Reggie was an important supporting player behind the burgeoning dominance of Patrick Ewing.

    Williams could have threatened for Final Four MOP after scoring 20 against St. John's to put the Hoyas back in the title game in 1985. However, his rolled ankle late in the first half slowed him, making plenty of difference in Villanova's shocking two-point win.

    After that, Ewing was gone, and the team belonged to Williams. Reggie averaged 17.6 PPG and 8.2 RPG as a junior, but the Hoyas were eliminated in the second round come March.

    Reggie's senior year coincided with the advent of the three-point line, and his scoring made a corresponding leap all the way to 23.6 per game. He led a young team to the Elite Eight, and a number of close finishes earned that crew the nickname "Reggie and the Miracles."

    Williams shot better than 38 percent from deep and 48 percent from the floor, emphasizing how dangerous a shooter he was. He won Big East tournament MVP, conference Player of the Year and was a first-team All-American that year.

13. Sleepy Floyd, Georgetown 1979-82

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    Sleepy Floyd got his nickname because his eyelids tended to droop. Nothing else about the man could be considered anything close to lazy, as his tremendous athleticism made him one of the Big East's first superstars.

    Floyd was a sophomore when Georgetown joined the Big East, and he introduced himself to his new league by averaging nearly 19 PPG and shooting 55 percent from the floor.

    Sleepy wasn't a stranger to NCAA tournament success, leading the Hoyas to an Elite Eight in that first Big East season, then suffering the heartbreaking loss to North Carolina in the 1982 final.

    The loss had to sting Floyd more than most, since his fellow Gastonia, N.C. native James Worthy made the final play to doom Georgetown. It was Worthy who drew all the attention of ACC schools, leaving Floyd to join the independent Hoyas. Floyd had beaten Worthy by a point for a North Carolina state championship, but Worthy got his revenge.

    Floyd is still Georgetown's all-time scoring leader and stands second in school history in steals. Despite the hype around Ewing, who was a freshman in Floyd's final season, Sleepy left Georgetown as a consensus first-team All-American.

12. Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown 1988-92

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    Georgetown can be a difficult place for a center to play, walking into the shadow of Patrick Ewing. Alonzo Mourning idolized Ewing and wanted nothing more than to walk in those enormous shoes.

    Mourning wasn't Ewing, but he was still a devastating defensive player. He set the tone early by blocking 169 shots in his freshman campaign. That total remains a Big East record.

    In that 1988-89 season, the Hoyas went to the Elite Eight, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that Mourning would soon follow Ewing's footsteps all the way to the Final Four. That never happened, as despite adding another skyscraper in Dikembe Mutombo, Georgetown could make it no farther than the second round the next three seasons.

    Individually, Mourning took Big East Defensive Player of the Year three of his four seasons. One award was shared with Mutombo and his attempt at an Ewing-esque sweep was thwarted by Mutombo. In 1992, he swept all the league awards, including tournament MVP, while becoming the first Hoya to make first-team All-American since...yep, Patrick Ewing.

11. Ray Allen, UConn 1993-96

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    There are only four players in Big East history to record a thousand career points in three years of conference games. Ray Allen and his UConn replacement Richard Hamilton are two of them.

    Unlike many of the stars on this list, Allen wasn't a dominant presence as a freshman, but he still managed 12.6 PPG in less than 22 minutes per night. He served as the bench spark plug for a team that spent the second half of the season in the top 10.

    The Huskies reached No. 1 midway through Allen's sophomore season, a campaign in which he replaced Donyell Marshall as the primary offensive threat.

    As a junior, Allen upped his scoring to 23.4 PPG and secured his second straight Associated Press All-American selection, becoming the first Husky to be so honored twice. Hamilton quickly joined him.

    There was one other thing that Hamilton was able to do that Allen could not, but more on that later. Ray made an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16's, but could never put a UConn squad into the Final Four. Still, he remains one of the league's most lethal offensive players of all time.

10. Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse 2002-03

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    The rest of the players on this list had multiple seasons of dominance in Big East competition.

    Carmelo Anthony, not so much. He came, he saw, he won, he bolted after leading the Orange to the 2003 NCAA championship.

    Melo packed more accomplishments into one season than most players ever manage in four. He remains the only player to win Big East Rookie of the Year and Final Four Most Outstanding Player in the same season. For that matter, he and Patrick Ewing are the only two men to win those awards in the same career.

    A consensus second-team All-American, Melo went for 20 and 10 in the NCAA title win over Kansas. Those totals actually fell short of his 22-and-10 season averages. After the title win, there were very few worlds left for him to conquer in college.

    Only the third freshman to win the Final Four MOP (after Arnie Ferrin of Utah in 1944 and Louisville's Pervis Ellison in 1986), Anthony became the first to go out on top, leaving for the NBA after his lone season.

9. Kemba Walker, UConn 2008-11

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    If ever a player could be said to strap his team to his back and carry them to the promised land, it was Connecticut's Kemba Walker. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

    As a freshman, Walker was a prominent sixth man on the Huskies' 2009 Final Four team. His legend may have been born a few weeks earlier, however.

    It was Walker's basket with 1.1 seconds left in regulation that started UConn and Syracuse on a crazy six-overtime odyssey in the 2009 Big East tournament.

    From there, Walker progressed to first-team All-America status two seasons later. Midway through his junior year, he was leading the nation in scoring.

    He lost out on both the scoring title and national Player of the Year honors to BYU's Jimmer Fredette, but Jimmer didn't have a postseason run nearly as scintillating as Kemba's.

    Tied for ninth in the conference, the Huskies had to make a conference tournament run to have much of a chance at the Big Dance. Five wins in five days later, their fortunes were safe with an automatic bid spurred by Walker's 130 points, 26 per game.

    The winning streak continued all the way to the national championship. While UConn's win over Butler may have been the ugliest championship game of the last 50 years, UConn fans found it a thing of beauty and Kemba Walker's legacy was secure.

8. Richard Hamilton, UConn 1996-99

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    Richard "Rip" Hamilton followed Ray Allen in the procession of stellar wings to pass through Storrs, and had a similarly decorated career. Hamilton does, however, have one big piece of hardware that neither Allen, Chris Smith, Donyell Marshall or any other Husky before him can boast: a ring from UConn's first national championship.

    In 1999, Hamilton was the first Husky to win Final Four Most Outstanding Player and he remains the only UConn player to win or share two Big East Player of the Year awards.

    Rip recorded back-to-back seasons of 21.5 PPG during his sophomore and junior years, and he remains one of only two players in Big East history to top 2,000 points in a three-year career.

    Just about the only thing Ray Allen did that Rip Hamilton didn't was star in a Spike Lee movie, but even that came after college.

7. Kerry Kittles, Villanova 1992-96

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    Villanova has turned out more great players than the casual fan would know, but none have compared to the career of Kerry Kittles.

    A recruit who came all the way up from New Orleans, Kittles helped the proud Wildcat program restore some luster after the shaky final years of coach Rollie Massimino. He helped Nova to its first Big East tournament title, a pair of NCAA tournament bids and the 1994 NIT championship.

    Kittles was a second-team All-American and Big East Player of the Year as a junior, but he surprisingly decided to return to school. In his senior year, he made first-team All-American, but was beaten out for another league POY trophy by UConn's Ray Allen.

    A devastating all-around player, Kittles is still the Wildcats' all-time leader in points and steals. He also averaged nearly six rebounds per game for his career, an impressive figure for a 6'5", 180-pound guard.

6. Dwayne Washington, Syracuse 1983-86

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    Dwayne "Pearl" Washington brought the Brooklyn playground to Syracuse's Carrier Dome. The Big East was becoming known for workmanlike players like Chris Mullin and the imposing defensive menace of Patrick Ewing, but Pearl added a healthy dose of showmanship to the fledgling league.

    Not a tremendous athlete, Pearl could simply manipulate the ball in ways that his opponents had seemingly never seen before. At 6'3" and nearly 200 pounds, he could also overpower many of the players assigned to guard him.

    Washington is still fourth in Big East history with 6.6 assists per game in conference play, and his 2.3 steals per game place 15th. As a byproduct of his ability to get to the rack, Pearl shot an impressive 52.6 percent from the floor, a figure most point guards can only dream of.

    A great debate can always be found by asking the question, "Who do you want with the ball in his hands with the clock winding down?" Pearl's supporters can point to Syracuse's 6-1 record in one-point games during Washington's career.

    Pearl's most spectacular ending came on Jan. 24, 1984, when the freshman took a rebound, raced to midcourt and heaved in a desperation toss to defeat Boston College. He never stopped running until he made it to the locker room.

5. Allen Iverson, Georgetown 1994-96

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    Allen Iverson was already a controversial figure before he arrived at Georgetown, and he was still one long after he left. While he wore the Hoyas' grey jersey, though, he was simply a marvel.

    In both of his seasons, Iverson poured in more than 20 PPG, reaching 25 per game as a sophomore. He remains one of only three Big East sophomores to earn a consensus first-team All-America honor. Patrick Ewing and Troy Murphy are the other two.

    The waterbug quickness of Iverson presented a different kind of defensive menace to Georgetown's opponents. Known for glowering big men like Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, the Hoyas' defense spearheaded by Iverson was one of quick hands and easy transition baskets off steals.

    Iverson remains second in Big East history with 3.6 steals per game in conference play.

    The Hoyas reached a Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight with Iverson leading the charge, but his scattered 6-of-21 shooting night doomed GU to a blowout loss in the 1996 East Regional final against UMass.

    Iverson made up for his diminutive size by playing with wild abandon on both ends of the court. While his frenetic style sometimes cost him, it also brought him every bit of success his career has known.

4. Walter Berry, St. John's 1984-86

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    If 1985 was the year of Patrick Ewing, 1986 was the year of Walter Berry.

    After Ewing and Chris Mullin split a lot of the national player of the year awards in 1985, Mullin's St. John's teammate Berry took them all the following season.

    Before that, though, the Johnnies reached the Final Four in Berry's first season out of junior college. A loaded team featuring Mullin, Berry, Mark Jackson and Bill Wennington fell to Georgetown, with another Big East foe, Villanova, triumphing in the other semifinal.

    With Mullin and Wennington graduating, the 6'8" Berry was slid to center for the 1985-86 season and became the most dominant player in America. He averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks while shooting almost 60 percent from the floor.

    Berry still ranks 11th in league history in conference scoring average and 10th in rebounds per game.

    Lou Carnesecca may have been the last coach to really get the best out of Berry. His pro career took him from the NBA to Europe, battling with coaches all the way. Still, while in a St. John's jersey, the best of Berry was as good as anyone could ask for.

3. Derrick Coleman, Syracuse 1986-90

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    Derrick Coleman was a tremendous college player and a pretty strong pro, but outside of Syracuse, his legacy is as the poster boy for what Sports Illustrated called "petulant prima donnas."

    As a freshman, he helped the Orangemen reach the national championship game. There, he set a freshman record with 19 rebounds, but missed a fateful free throw that allowed Keith Smart's final jump shot to win the game rather than tie it.

    Coleman helped keep Syracuse at the top of the polls, but the Orange never returned to the Final Four in his career. In his senior season, he attained first-team All-American honors and was named Big East Player of the Year, but Syracuse fell to Minnesota in the Sweet 16.

    By the end of Coleman's career, he was a double-double machine, recording 83 in all. Only Tim Duncan and Ralph Sampson recorded more. Coleman's 1,573 career rebounds ranks third in the NCAA's modern era, trailing only Kenneth Faried and Duncan.

    A dazzling all-around player, Coleman carried Hall of Fame expectations into his professional career. Those were not quite realized, and the popular consensus points to DC himself as the primary cause.

2. Chris Mullin, St. John's 1981-85

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    Chris Mullin battled with Patrick Ewing for Big East supremacy in the league's first decade. While Ewing's Georgetown Hoyas enjoyed tremendous team success, Mullin won a raft of individual honors and the Johnnies managed one Final Four trip of their own.

    One of the college game's purest shooters, Mullin still ranks sixth all-time in conference scoring despite playing before the advent of the college three-point line.

    Mullin, who is nigh-unrecognizable without his signature crew cut in the picture to the left, averaged 16.6 PPG as a freshman and only got better from there. As a junior, he averaged almost 23 per night while shooting a stunning 57 percent from the floor.

    In his senior year, Mullin joined with JUCO forward Walter Berry, sophomore point guard Mark Jackson and seven-footer Bill Wennington to carry St. John's to a Final Four that served as the Big East's true coming-out party. The Johnnies and Villanova reaching the semifinals proved that the league wasn't just Georgetown and the seven dwarfs.

    The Hoyas did, though, blow the Redmen out in their semifinal game, a result that epitomized the battles between Mullin and Ewing. Ewing's team took superior honors, but when Mullin shared the Big East Player of the Year award with Ewing for the second time, it was Mullin's third such trophy.

    Ewing could only share the two, never winning one outright.

1. Patrick Ewing, Georgetown 1981-85

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    Winning fewer Big East POY honors than Chris Mullin was one of the few defeats any league opponent could ever deal Patrick Ewing.

    The Jamaica-born behemoth took the league Rookie of the Year award, then added two Player of the Year trophies and was four-for-four in taking honors for Defensive Player of the Year. He was a three-time first-team All-American, took a couple of national POY awards as a senior and topped it off with a national title and Final Four MOP award in 1984.

    In three of Ewing's four seasons, the Hoyas played for the national championship. Ewing outdueled another future Hall of Famer, Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon, in leading Georgetown past Houston in 1984. The two championship losses were by a total of three points, one cemented by a colossal turnover from Hoya guard Fred Brown.

    Perhaps the most fitting measure of Ewing's Big East dominance is that he was the first conference alumnus to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He's still among the top 10 in conference scoring, while his block total and field-goal percentage have yet to be toppled.

    Finally, Ewing is still the only player in Big East history to be named a consensus first-team All-American three times.

    The Big East needed a superstar and a dominant team to kick it into national prominence, and Patrick Ewing was more than big enough to carry the weight.

     

    For more from Scott on college basketball nationwide, check out The Back Iron (now on CollegeBasketballTalk's #NBCMustFollow College Hoop Directory).


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